The Voice: What Makes You Turn Your Chair?
The Voice is my guilty pleasure. I love the premise of the blind auditions. The judges’ backs are turned away from the stage so they can’t base their opinions on a performer’s looks. It is, literally, all about the voice. Of course, once auditions are over and teams are chosen, it becomes a national popularity contest, especially at the end of the season when America does the voting.
Still, the show is upbeat, and unlike its predecessor, American Idol, all who audition have been vetted and have real talent, even if they don’t get a chair to turn—no horrible warbling followed by unkind remarks by the judges (AI never sat well with me for that reason). The Voice contestants often arrive with emotional backstories that are braced with comic relief by the easy camaraderie between the judges. The singers come to The Voice stage with a singular mantra: If one of the judges turns a chair for me today it will validate all my hard work. It will prove I’m meant to be a singer. It will change my life.
Authors feel the same way when they send out query letters, so I empathize with them from the comfort of my family room sofa.
In any event, as the hubster and I watched The Voice last night, it occurred to me that just like the judges with their backs turned, readers are in a similar place when they open a book by an author that is new to them. On The Voice, the contestant has a mere ninety seconds in which to command the stage and capture the attention of the judges. Authors have less than that, I’ve been told—only a paragraph, two if you’re lucky, to convince someone their book is worth reading. Less than that if you consider that many will read the back cover blurb and never even open the book.
Once the book is opened, though, what is it that ensures a reader will keep turning the pages?
There’s the all-important first line, the hook. Plot and characters must be discounted because neither has time to develop in those first opening sentences. So what does it? What makes a reader turn to the stage?
The author’s voice is what grabs readers. Yes, yes, the action, the opening line, the premise and plot—all of these are important ingredients and play a role. But we’re talking about that first ninety-second audition, right?
If the voice doesn’t capture you, isn’t enough to hold your attention, you won’t hit the big red button to turn your chair and invite the contestant on your team. You might be missing out on a great book, but does it matter? If the voice isn’t one with which you want to spend precious hours of your life, then why keep reading? For me, there have been books I’ve had to force myself to plow through when the voice didn’t grab me, just because it was required reading. Torture. Sheer torture. (Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald—gak! But I loved The Great Gatsby.) Other books snapped me up in an instant. (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.)
An agent told me once that voice is everything. It trumps theme, premise, and plot. An author’s voice is a game changer, she said. The book can be crap, but if the voice is amazing, people will read it. It is also subjective in the extreme. Just like on The Voice where one judge may slap his button and the other three decline, so it is with books and readers.
Singers may take voice lessons. Writers may take writing workshops. Some things are constant—in music, a C is always a C, no matter the quality of the voice singing it. In writing, grammar rules are still grammar rules, no matter the author. It is the voice employing those tools that makes all the difference. And just like the voices on The Voice, some have that something extra and some do not. Chalk it up to luck and natural talent. Someone can study voice for decades but will never have a voice as instantly recognizable as Celine Dion. Or write hundreds of thousands of words and never have a voice as distinct as Stephen King and Nora Roberts.
Voice cannot be taught to a writer. Voice just is—that indefinable factor that comes from within and is developed over time and a relentless study of craft. It is always part of us, who we were, are, and hope to become. We coax it out, note by note, word by word, hoping it is unique enough to be remembered, appreciated . . . and heard.
Find your voice, buttercup, and don’t hold back. Let it shine.
THE BIG QUESTION: What is it about a voice, in music or literature, which captures your attention? What makes the difference to you during that ninety-second audition? What makes you press the big red button and turn your chair to the stage?
For your listening pleasure, here’s Jordan Smith, winner of The Voice from a couple seasons ago. Enjoy!
See you next week for more of the Naked Truth. Have a great week!
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